The "huge challenge" of feeding a growing population while reversing nature declines amid a warming climate was discussed by farmers and academics at a Norfolk seminar.

More than 130 people attended the networking event chaired by Dr Mick Collins at the UEA's Enterprise Centre.

They had a chance to put their questions to experts on the theme of "sustainable food production in a time of ecological and global crisis".

Speakers included Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the 25,000-acre Holkham Estate near Wells, and author of "Land Healer", a book offering an optimistic vision of how "farming can save the countryside".

He said farmers are at the "forefront of the challenge" presented by climate change and a "biodiversity crisis".

"I have witnessed the disappearance of nature, but I am of the firm belief that agriculture, because it occupies such a vast area of land, has a real opportunity to play its role," he said.

"We have got to go beyond 'net zero' - that is just greenwashing. And I am really frustrated with the word 'sustainability', because we need to go above and beyond sustainability if we have any hope of handing our planet on to our children in the next 10-20 years.

"We have a huge challenge. I spoke at an event earlier this year with Defra's ex-chief scientist, who gave this amazing stat. Because he was a Scot he was referring to Scotland. But the average Scot extracts 18 tonnes of natural resources annually in the way they live their lives.

"If we are to prevent the catastrophe of climate change and famine and lack of water, they need to extract eight tonnes. That is a phenomenal amount of work that we have got to do.

"We have got to stop talking about and do something, because there is too much talk and not enough action."

Eastern Daily Press: Marina O'Connell, a director of the Apricot Centre in Devon was one of the speakers at a sustainable food conference at the UEA Enterprise CentreMarina O'Connell, a director of the Apricot Centre in Devon was one of the speakers at a sustainable food conference at the UEA Enterprise Centre (Image: Archant)

Also speaking was Marina O'Connell, a director of the Apricot Centre in Devon and author of "Designing Regenerative Food Systems: And Why We Need Them".

In 2015 she left her farm in Essex and took on the tenancy for Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington where her team set about regenerating the small 13-hectare holding.

Five years later, she said an impact assessment found that the farm had become carbon negative, sequestering more carbon than it uses, but also supporting more biodiversity while remaining an economically-viable food producer.

She suggested solutions to farming's carbon, climate and nature challenges could be found within a "toolkit" of agricultural systems such as biodynamic farming, agroforestry, agroecology, and soil-nurturing regenerative agriculture.

She handed around soil samples, so delegates could compare the infertile soil of 2015 with the productive soil it has become now.

"When you focus on the soil, everything else follows," she said. "Once you have replenished and regenerated the soil biome it then starts sequestering carbon.

"Organic matter goes up and, as it does, the soil becomes like a sponge, it becomes rehydrated and it hangs onto water when it is dry and it soaks it up when it is wet.

"These soil start cycling nutrients so you don't have to buy in nitrate fertilisers any more.

"By restoring or regenerating the soil biome, the system just kicks itself off and it is right at the bottom of the food chain so once it is there the worms turn up, the birds turn up, and everything else turns up."

The meeting included a panel discussion which also featured David Wolfe of Wakelyns, who runs one of the UK's longest-established agro-forestry sites, integrating beneficial rows of trees within an organic farm in Suffolk.

The panel was completed by Josh Smith of The Goodery, a Norwich-based online organic grocery marketplace, "connecting local farmers, ethical businesses and conscious consumers".

Event organiser Fran Ellington of Triple Bottom Line Accounting, said: "My key takeaway from the evening is that there is no time like the present to change how we farm and distribute food.

"It needs to be sustainable economically, socially and environmentally. Adaptation is crucial, and there is no one solution – a collaborative systems change approach is needed."

The event raised £1,127 for The Feed, a social enterprise which runs cafés and a catering venture with the aim of preventing hunger and homelessness in Norwich.